Republicans demand Biden challenge China's Xi on fentanyl, prisoners

The flags of the United States and China fly in Boston

By Michael Martina

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans in the U.S. Congress urged President Joe Biden to make demands of China's leader Xi Jinping over detained Americans and other issues when they meet next week in San Francisco, arguing that Washington's push to engage Beijing had "negligible benefit."

The Biden-Xi meeting around events at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum will follow a series of largely unreciprocated U.S. cabinet-level visits to China, as the U.S. seeks to recover from a diplomatic crisis over its downing of a suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the United States in February.

Republicans and Democrats in Congress have offered sometimes different approaches for countering China's growing economic and military might despite bipartisan consensus on the need to do so.

The 13 Republicans on the House of Representative's bipartisan select committee on China, led by chairman Mike Gallagher, credited the Biden administration in a letter made public on Thursday for strengthened semiconductor export controls and restrictions on outbound investment toward China.

But they asked Biden to present Xi with a list of 10 demands to improve relations, much like Beijing did to U.S. officials in 2021.

Their demands included that China release all Americans the U.S. considers wrongfully detained, take measures over the flow of chemicals used in the opioid fentanyl, cease unsafe intercepts of U.S. ships and aircraft in international waters, and stop the harassment of Philippines ships around a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The lawmakers said they shared Biden's desire to deter a conflict, but that the president's engagement push had come at an "unacceptable cost" to competitive or defensive actions that have been "delayed, scuttled, or otherwise dropped."

"So far, these very real tradeoffs have led to negligible benefit," they said.

Meanwhile, the letter said Beijing had taken no steps to stop military provocations in the South China Sea or toward the democratically governed island of Taiwan, which China claims as its own.

The U.S. also had taken few recent actions toward China specifically regarding human rights issues, the lawmakers wrote, adding that for nearly two years the U.S. had not imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy or for allegations of rights abuses in China's Xinjiang region and had not expanded trade restrictions under the Treasury Department's Chinese Military-Industrial Complex Companies List.

"It is clear that competitive actions have been sacrificed to advance aimless, zombie-like engagement," they said.

The White House did not respond immediately to a request for comment on the letter.

China denies allegations by Western governments that it abuses human rights.

Families of Americans the U.S. government has classified as wrongfully detained in China, including Texas-based businessman Mark Swidan, Chinese-American Kai Li and pastor David Lin, have also repeatedly urged the government to prioritize the release of their loved ones in talks with Chinese officials.

China says such cases are handled according to law.

(Reporting by Michael Martina and Patricia Zengerle; editing by Grant McCool)